Expect to see Bruce Willis on slopes, girls skating in velvet

KETCHUM, Idaho - It seems everyone who spends time around Sun Valley has stories to tell of celebrity encounters.

They stood in line at the bookstore last week behind Bruce Springsteen, or at Tully’s Coffee the other day with Arnold Schwarzenegger. They performed in community theater with Bruce Willis in neighboring Hailey or introduced themselves to Larry David at Dollar Mountain, one of the two ski areas that make up the fabled 74-year-old resort.

“You see movie stars and it just doesn’t mean much after a while,” said Bill Smith, a longtime Hailey resident. “They just come and go, and most of them are very nice.”

Hollywood potentates, skiing, and a strong pride in local history merge seamlessly in this string of small communities in the northern Rocky Mountains. Sun Valley is a city of its own that includes a large resort and hotel complex. But the name is often used by visitors to describe the entire resort area of the Wood River Valley, including the cities of Hailey and Ketchum, a dozen miles apart.

The cultural and natural elements of this stunning valley form a complex realm that includes farmers, artists and local businesses, small local music festivals and large private jets, many dozens of great restaurants and a backdrop of towering mountains.

The Sun Valley Resort, near Ketchum, has upscale lodging for 1,200 in its main lodge building, an inn, and condos, apartments and houses within walking distance of the lodge’s heated pools and skating rink. The lodge has an unusual old-world charm heightened by its tall evergreens and abundance of snow. It’s the kind of place where you might see a pair of young girls skating around the rink in black velvet frock coats.

Established in 1936, Sun Valley is generally accepted as the first destination ski resort in the United States (though some argue the honor belongs to Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill in Franconia, N.H., established in 1929). Union Pacific Railroad developed the first chairlift in the world at Sun Valley, said Jack Sibbach, director of public relations for the resort.

There are two ski mountains in the immediate area. One is Dollar, which at $40 per day for adults is a magnet for families who send their young children snow- plowing down the gentle slopes as part of Dollar’s extensive lesson program. Dollar has just five lifts and 10 runs, making it the kind of place where you can set your kids loose on skis with a reasonable expectation of spotting them here and there on the mountain throughout the day.

Just down the road is the huge Bald Mountain, where you’re likely to see spectacular feats of skiing prowess, some performed by senior-citizen virtuosos. Baldy has 65 runs and 14 lifts, including a brand-new eight-passenger gondola that travels 2,000 vertical feet in less than eight minutes. Tickets at Baldy start at $82 for adults, though as with Dollar, check the Web site for deals.

And then there’s the more modest Soldier Mountain, 50 miles southwest of Hailey. Soldier is co-owned by Bruce Willis. The lodge at the base of the ski area was destroyed last spring in a fire, but it’s being rebuilt. Construction is in the final phase and a notice on Soldier’s Web site said a Jan. 28 opening was likely.